Joel Garreau has made a career out of imagining the unimaginable. The 56-year-old writer tracked the evolution of the Internet as an editor of the Washington Post’s Style section. His book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He even helped Steven Spielberg envision a future Washington for the film Minority Report.
His latest meditation on scientific innovation’s exponentially quickening pace, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human, again invites his readership to take a peek into the not-too-distant future. “This guy in Boston has a jack in his forehead,” Garreau says, excitedly explaining one of the marvels he recently uncovered. “Last summer, he was the first person to send an e-mail using only his thoughts.”
Radical Evolution is packed with such “Holy shit!” breakthroughs—a telekinetic chimpanzee, an “exoskeleton suit” that allows a soldier to carry 180 pounds as easily as she would carry five, and immortality through genetic enhancement—but is much more than a laundry list for pasty Wired subscribers. Garreau, a devotee of “scenario planning,” posits three divergent outcomes to show how innovation might change the way human beings regard their own nature: “Heaven,” a utopia in which technology has freed society from work, want, and death itself; the Matrix– cum– Terminator– cum– Philip K. Dick “Hell,” in which technology run amok has enslaved humanity and destroyed all vestiges of society; and “Prevail,” a middle ground where people, while deeply affected by innovation, retain their control over history.
“I don’t have a single prediction in Radical Evolution,” Garreau insists. “I do lay out scenarios based on cold, hard fact. I don’t tell you what’s going to happen. I tell you what’s in the labs right now—no shit.”
What’s in the labs is “GRIN technology”—genetic, robotic, information, and nano-, or the study of making things smaller and stronger. Progress in GRIN has helped us book flights, find the number of a sushi place across town, and travel to Mars, but, according to Radical Evolution, it might also lead to a watershed moment called “the Singularity,” beyond which we would face impossible questions: Could “natural” students be expected to compete with “enhanced” students who have paid for photographic memories, speed-reading abilities, and elimination of the need for sleep? Could a marriage end when one partner leaves a spouse for an emotionally advanced cyborg? If we are the first species to control our own evolution, are we God?
“I’m rooting for the Prevail scenario, in a way,” Garreau says. He offers 9/11 as an example of how people can “co-evolve” to fight the problems of the future. “The fourth airplane never made it to its target not because the White House or Air Force reacted, but because ordinary humans solved a problem at a great expense to themselves.”
Even if the Singularity is headed our way, Garreau won’t sit holding PC Magazine while waiting for the inevitable. Instead, the writer leads the quiet life of “a troll of a small forest in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge” and recognizes the value of more-personal yardsticks of progress.
“Ten years ago, the phrase ‘dot-com’ hadn’t been invented,” he says. “It’s easier keeping track of this through [my] daughters.”